South Korea and the United States both recorded their first Covid-19 cases on the same day, but the trajectory of both states in terms of their response has been markedly different. While the former has witnessed its number of new cases seemingly plateau, the US continues to struggle with a rising infection rate. On Friday, South Korea added 98 new instances, the eleventh day in a row that the number did not soar out of control. 

The Asian state reported a total of 8,897 cases as of Friday, compared to 15,219 in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While the population of America is six-and-a-half times larger than South Korea, it is also 100 times larger by land area. Even populated metropolitan areas such as the coastal regions are considerably less dense. Logically, the US should have had either the same rate of virus transmission or less. 

However that is not the case as America recently surpassed Italy to claim the number-two spot for most Covid-19 cases. To be clear, the US is not alone in struggling against the coronavirus. In Italy, the United Kingdom, and Spain, for example, the number of cases have been doubling every 2 to 3 days. While the US is faring better in this regard, when laid out on a chart by the New York Times, South Korea is clearly an exemplary case among all other nations; Seoul reports its number of cases doubling roughly every week by comparison.

A Rush to Test Sets South Korea Apart

How did Seoul become a standout when other nations seem overwhelmed? The short answer is relatively simple: quick testing. After a Jan. 27 meeting, the South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rapidly approved the first test, then another, and rolled them out by the end of the month. Since then, it has tested 307,000 people, the most per capita of any nation.

“We acted like an army,” said Lee Sang-won, an infections diseases expert with the CDC. The government feared it could quickly turn into a pandemic even from the onset of having recorded only four initial cases.

The differences between Washington’s and Seoul’s handling of the virus started with developing the test, as Reuters reported. While South Korea rushed to get kits approved and manufactured, the US Food and Drug Administration moved slower for the sake of accuracy, a decision that partially paid off as the first batch of tests was found to be corrupted. 

‘There Are Always Opportunities to Learn From Situations Like This’

“There are always opportunities to learn from situations like this one,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn. “But one thing I will stand firm on: We cannot compromise on the quality of the tests because what would be worse than no tests at all is wildly inaccurate test results.”

Still, South Korea managed to accomplish it. Somehow it was able to pull off what the US couldn’t: get a test kit out the door, in bulk no less, and setup test sites — 633 by the latest count. Manufacturers were given an “emergency use authorization” to speed up development, which helped expedite the process.

“The government acted quickly,” said Myoah Baek, executive director at Kogene Biotech Co Ltd. The CDC “disclosed information on test methods so test kit makers were able to speed up development.”

In the beginning of the crisis, tests were cross-checked with partner labs verifying the results to determine an accuracy level.

Leveraging Technology to Track the Coronavirus

South Korea is also heavily relying on technology to track the virus. The infection is mapped on a smartphone app so residents can see where it has already spread.

“Koreans are super good at making things convenient for people — we don’t have any patience,” said Kee Park, global health lecturer at Harvard Medical School. “South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world, where everybody uses cell phones for just about everything, and [the government] was able to use our cell phones to not only track but send warnings, like ‘watch out, there’s a Covid-19 patient in your vicinity.’”

Some of the technological methods are a result of Seoul’s encounter with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. The virus took the lives of 36 Koreans, infecting 186 total. As a response, the government passed laws to allow it to react faster and in a sweeping fashion this time around. It now legally collects a wide-range of data from infected persons including credit card history, cellular records, and GPS information.

This data is then published, anonymously, on social media platforms to allow other people to determine if they came into contact with the infected patient. While data shows the tactic is likely helping South Korea win its battle with Covid-19, replicating it inside other states would be troublesome due to privacy concerns. Americans, for example, are generally less-willing to share information with the government and a law like South Korea’s would have difficulty passing Congress.

South Korea Fits Unique Profile But Still Valuable Lessons to Learn

Therefore, South Korea’s methods are not a one-size-fit-all. Testing, however, has proven to be a vital component to its early response success. Although that should seem obvious, in the US, a lack of testing has frustrated doctors, patients, and lawmakers.

“It makes me feel like I’m living in a farce,” said Dr. Ritu Thamman, a cardiologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “We are a rich country but we don’t have [tests for medical personnel]?”

The collapse of the American healthcare system is another reality that Covid-19 is forcing Americans to square with. Compared to South Korea’s free, government-run system, America’s private insurance framework has even caused confusion with whether coronavirus tests will be covered, thanks to President Donald Trump mistakenly promoting a deal with insurance companies to make tests free.

“I don’t know how we messed this up so badly,” said Ruth Blodgett, 65, whose husband could not obtain a test despite the doctor ordering one. “We got caught flat-footed. For America, that’s unacceptable.”